Dimensional Walls Getting Thinner: The Collective Minds of Krallice
What started out a back-to-basics project has turned into one of the coolest, most forward-thinking American metal bands of this decade.
Considering the other musical projects of Mick Barr and Colin Marston, it's not much of a surprise that the guitarists are taken aback by all the attention their band Krallice has received over the last year and a half. After all, these guys have never, ever specialized in any kind of music that would remotely fall under the description, "accessible". You've got avant-garde noodler Barr, who has lent his fleet-fingered shredding and tremolo picking to challenging (to say the least) recordings by Ocrilim, Orthrelm, Crom-Tech, and even jazz-punk veterans the Flying Luttenbachers.
On the other side there's Marston, who was previously best known for wielding the insane-looking 12 string Warr guitar with progressive metal band Behold… the Arctopus, as well as contributing to other notable prog-minded bands like Disrhythmia and Indricothere. Compare those musical endeavors to the no-frills black metal approach of Krallice, and it's little wonder which band is selling more units for the duo these days.
"We've definitely gotten a lot of good press it seems, but that's all I know," says Marston, on the phone from Disrhythmia's tour van somewhere in Michigan. "We've done one tour, and that was opening for another band, so that doesn't really give you a sense of how many people give a shit. But it definitely seems to be much more accepted by reviews and stuff. Which makes sense, because it's the most normal band I'm in for sure. So I'm not surprised by that."
"It was very unexpected," admits Barr, via email. "We had no ambitions or plans for this band outside of making an album. I was even apprehensive about releasing anything at first and after working so hard for years on music that most people seemed to hate, it was strange that more people were open to something that took way less time to get together. Not saying that we half-assed it, just that it flowed much more naturally. And it was also strange to then have people read into it in ways we didn't expect. Like saying the first album was shreddy and technical... not to us."
They're being modest of course. Barr and Marston might have gone into this project with the intention of creating some good, old-fashioned primitive black metal, but try as they might, old habits die hard, and for all its blunt fury Krallice is without a doubt one of the more adventurous, unique sounding bands not only in black metal, but the entire genre as a whole.
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The template is relatively simple, combining the repetitive, hypnotic sounds of Burzum (circa Hvis Lyset Tar Oss and Filosofem), the stately melodies of early Ulver, and the epic atmospheric sounds of American innovators Weakling. However, thanks in large part to Barr's inimitable, swiftly-picked playing style – a perfect fit for the thin guitar sounds of black metal – that strong sense of melody combined with his undeniable technical ability creates something pristine in a genre usually reserved for raw ugliness, the music at times rivaling the glistening, minimalist strains of Philip Glass more than, say, Darkthrone. With drummer Lev Weinstein (he of Brooklyn avant-doomsters Bloody Panda) throttling away at a furious pace, it's a phenomenal, intoxicating combination, one that made 2008's eponymous debut a critical hit and continues on the just-as-strong new follow-up Dimensional Bleedthrough.
If anything, Dimensional Bleedthrough feels a lot more a complete band effort as opposed to feeling like merely a project between two prolific guitarists. Of course, having bassist Nick McMaster in the fold in the songwriting and recording processes helps immensely, and the overall tone on the new album is different from the first record: fuller, punchier, stronger emphasis on a more sonically rich sound than mere icy atmospherics, with even a touch of death metal creeping in as well.
"I don't think we had any particular goals in mind in terms of being decidedly different," Marston says. "Some things about it ended up being different, but they weren't preconceived. For instance, on the new album there's no solos, there's no keyboards, and all that was because once we actually started recording it we realized there wasn't room or a need for those embellishments."
"The writing went pretty smoothly with all of us contributing a lot," explains Barr. "And we worked really hard on getting the songs ready for our tour in May, then practiced them every night on stage for 3 weeks. Got back from tour and went straight into Colin's studio. The recording was a bit hairy and intense though."
"It was stressful just knowing that this massive, multifaceted thing we'd conceived together over months was being translated into permanence, and we wouldn't get another shot at it," says McMaster. "We'd had a plan to finish all the arrangements, iron out all the kinks and kick up the tempos on tour with Wolves in the Throne Room and then record right when we got back to New York. But there were some complications, and we didn't get to start for a couple weeks. So from the beginning there was this conception that the session wasn't going as planned, and meanwhile some of the halo of being in excellent playing shape from tour had faded. The recording of 'Autochthon' gave me an enormous translucent blister on my picking ring finger which stayed there for over a month. "
Marston elaborates, "It was a really hard album to make, it's the hardest album I've ever mixed. It was really, really difficult, it's actually very difficult for me to listen to it now…Just being able to get all the tracks audible proved very difficult for one reason or another. I know that on some of the newer material, especially the songs that Mick started, there's a drone string going through pretty much all the riffs, so having that combined with always having the other guitar and the bass doing different things meant that there wasn't as much room as in a mix where all the instruments are pretty much playing the same thing, to have everything come across… And I had a particular idea of how I wanted things panned and mixed, so to make all that stuff work and still sound pretty organic, it just ended up taking up a really long time, and it was really frustrating for me."
Not only that, but as Marston adds, pure dumb luck made the recording process even more of a hassle. "The main thing that happened that made everything fucked up was that a couple days before we started recording, Mick got into a really terrible bike accident and probably broke something…he fucked up his arm so bad he couldn't play guitar at all for a couple days. Gradually over the course of the next few weeks he was able to play little bits, but we were tracking the drums for the record with his arms wrapped up like a mummy. It was really dark, he was really upset, he didn't know whether he'd ever be able to play guitar again. That was like the air for when we started working on it, so it was kind of dark from the get-go," he laughs.
Your typical "grower", Dimensional Bleedthrough requires a little patience on the listener's part for the subtle differences between it and the first album to reveal themselves. "There's a good deal of textural guitar layering on the album," says Marston. "We did it the same way as the last one where all the main guitar parts are doubled, so there's actually four tracks of guitar going the whole time.
"But on this one, instead of using keyboards and stuff, I did a lot more, like using a cleaner sound with delay on it. I used a 12 string electric on some of the songs to beef up certain parts and add an ambient guitar texture here and there. The drum recording technique which I used on the first one and also used on the second one is doing a standard mic set-up, but also using a mic in the kitchen of my studio, which is down a bunch of snaky hallways from the live room, to get an almost synthetic-sounding reverb that's not synthetic."
Of course, having an extra band member chip in during the songwriting never hurts, and McMaster not only took part in the collaborative writing process, but provides lead vocals on a handful of tracks (his death-style growl a good contrast from Barr's abstract-sounding screech) and even contributes a song written solely by himself in the form of the blistering three-minute track "The Mountain". "One of my favorite things to do in a band where I'm not the principle songwriter is to write a song that impersonates the style," McMaster explains. "Krallice songs usually begin life as a series of riffs on Mick or Colin's guitar alone, then the other guitarist writes an accompanying part—this is how the characteristic polyphony comes about.
"On 'The Mountain', I was trying to ape this dynamic while writing all the parts myself, but also apply a slightly more straightforward, head-bangey approach. Aeternus and Hate Forest are two of my favorite bands, so I wanted to push in that direction a little. Not that there isn't precedent: 'Timehusk', on the first record is very much the forefather of 'The Mountain'. Every album needs at least one rager."
"[McMaster's involvement] was great, actually because on the first album I had to deal with engineering, playing guitar, and bass," states Marston. "And when we would practice, I would never play bass, I would just write the bass parts after we would practice as a trio, with two guitars and drums. So for that I would write a lot of the basslines, and when it actually came time to record them, I didn't remember how to play any of them. So I'd have to learn a riff or two at a time, track it, go back, learn the next riff. That was a real pain in the ass. With Nick, he was the most prepared out of any of us, and had his shit totally together. So when it came time to track bass, everything was pretty much one take. That part of the process was really awesome, he was just fuckin' nailing everything."
And as if McMaster wasn't bringing enough to the table already, he surprised all his bandmates by coming up with the artwork for the album's cover, a bizarre collage piece that has an eerily human form emerging from an array of organic detritus. Says Barr, "It was a total surprise when he made that. We had originally asked someone else to make something, but nothing came of it. Nick is steadily taking over this band," he adds wryly.
"That was a really awesome last-minute save," adds Marston. "Because we were trying consider whether using the same artist as last time, and Mick had another friend he wanted to try first. It took a really long time to get any sketches for it, and when we did he thought it was not in the right direction, so we were left having almost no time to get something together. I can't even remember if we even tried contacting Scott [Lenhardt] or not, but he's a really busy dude, so we kind of knew that even if we did get in touch with him, he probably wouldn't have time to do anything."
"It was awesome, because Nick just said, 'I'll try something.' I said, 'Okay, I guess that can't hurt,' and it ended up being something we all really, really liked. His girlfriend did our logo, and she also did the Disrhythmia logo and cover and a bunch of other stuff, and I think the two of them collaborated on it, she drew some of the elements of it, and some of them are sampled and collaged together."
"Mick wanted to go in the opposite direction from the first album: rather than a texture, or background, this cover would have an iconic central figure," says McMaster. "We'd all been on a pretty big Incantation kick around that time and thought that the cover of Mortal Throne of Nazarene was a good example of such a figure… I wanted to take Incantation's idea of fusing disparate parts into a new whole but ditch the guts and overtly Christian imagery. So I used bits from Western fine art and Persian miniatures, and had my collaborator Karlynn Holland re-draw the central mouth rather than use a copy of the original.
It was only after I was well on my way that I realized that this figure, compiled from art from different eras and cultures, blurring issues of original vs. reproduction, could certainly be seen as a representation of the concept of dimensional bleedthrough."